Nuon Chea, one of the chief ideologues of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, proclaimed his innocence and was defiant to the end as the trial against him and his co-accused, Khieu Samphan, wrapped up at the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Thursday.
Nearing the end of their trial, both men refused to testify further after claiming that it had been an unfair process carried out only to find them guilty, regardless of the facts they said would prove otherwise. Thursday gave them a final chance to state their cases and cast light on their roles in the regime that ruled for three years, eight months and 20 days—during which time about 1.7 million people died.
Although his appearances in the courtroom have been few over the two years he has been on trial for the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, two phases of population transfers and the execution of Lon Nol soldiers and officials at Tuol Po Chrey, Nuon Chea took center stage in front of a public gallery packed with diplomats, government officials and regime survivors as he denied one allegation after the other and ultimately called for his acquittal and release.
Reading in a powerful, unwavering voice to his “compatriots” from pages of prepared remarks, the 87-year-old former deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK)—often credited as Pol Pot’s right-hand man—faced the panel of judges who will determine if he is guilty of the crimes prosecutors say he should serve life in prison for having committed.
“The chamber has spent two years trying to determine my destiny for actions that took place in Democratic Kampuchea,” he said.
“This is the period when I spent most of my life carrying out duties to serve my country and beloved people. Despite some of my indirect part in this trial due to poor health, I’ve paid close attention… and it was clearly indicated that I was not involved in these crimes.
“In short, I am innocent in relation to those allegations,” Nuon Chea said.
And so began an hour-and-a-half-long appeal during which Nuon Chea placed the blame for suffering, torture, starvation and death at the feet of everyone but himself.
He was, he said, the disseminator of party propaganda and was tasked with educating the masses to treat each other with respect. At no point did he or his cohorts formulate any policies to enslave the people and work them to death. For that, he said, was the work of the Vietnamese.
His suspicions about the “trickery” of the Vietnamese were confirmed, he said, when they allegedly infiltrated the ranks of the Pol Pot regime and its military forces and began what he believed was a process that led to mass deaths and the destruction of the country.
“On April 17, 1975, the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea (RAK) gained victory over the Lon Nol regime and two weeks later, South Vietnam was also liberated and the people gained independence in managing the country.
“In reality, the Vietnamese armed forces had infiltrated the CPK and [RAK] in all places around the country. They didn’t return to Vietnam. They carried out their tasks covertly with the Vietnamese ethnic minority and some Cambodians. We failed to realize the depth of Vietnamese trickery, but later on, we clearly understood their trickery,” he said.
Nuon Chea said that ultimately, the fact that people were deprived of food and forced to work hard and others were killed “demonstrates that Vietnam had agents infiltrated in party ranks and the army in order to destroy the revolution, kill Cambodian people and annex Cambodian territory, which had been a long-term ambition of Vietnam.”
He also blamed unruly subordinates and differing factional interests among zone and district commanders for the suffering his regime caused.
The 1975 evacuation of Phnom Penh has taken its place in the annals of Cambodian history as one of the defining and enduring images of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge—an event relived during the trial by civil parties and witnesses to it. They spoke of the sick, pregnant and elderly being forced from hospitals and of wild-eyed, gun-toting Khmer Rouge youths screaming orders and firing shots, indiscriminately killing people who took too long to gather the few belongings they were permitted to take with them and leave.
However, as Nuon Chea described it, no one was forced to leave the city. Instead, people left of their own volition in response to requests to do so by the cadre—a “humane act” that would spare city dwellers from feared U.S. bombs and mounting famine.
“All city dwellers were indeed evacuated out of cities, but it was not a forced evacuation,” Nuon Chea told the court Thursday, adding that the party’s standing committee had instructed the central committee to prepare for the evacuation.
He said instructions were given to cadre to ask people to leave “without coercion, violence or killing.”
“People understood the dangerous situation and pressing need for the country; people especially supported and loved the revolution. Gradually the people left the cities in accordance with the explanation and appeal by the CPK. It was a humane act.”
He said “pressing tasks” kept him busy with matters in Phnom Penh and reiterated his denial of any knowledge of the execution of Lon Nol soldiers at Tuol Po Chrey, also distancing himself from notions that he held any real power in the CPK.
While going into great detail about crimes against people committed during the Sihanouk, Lon Nol and post-Khmer Rouge eras, Nuon Chea did not reference the widespread suffering under the Khmer Rouge regime, insisting that he learned of the toil and terror “only after 1979.”
“I still stand by my stated position that I am morally responsible for the untidy control of the CPK,” he told the court. But, he said, because his fair trial rights had not been honored and “based on evidence…, I respectfully submit for you to acquit me from all charges and release me. I am grateful.”
“They went for the body of the crocodile, but let the head and the tail evade the law. This is so unfair for me,” he said, referring to the prosecutors.
Co-accused Khieu Samphan, the regime’s former head of state, took less time pleading his case—but his distaste for the way in which the trial against him was conducted was written plainly on his face, and he would occasionally look up from his papers to impart unimpressed glances upon the prosecutors and civil party lawyers.
Khieu Samphan, 82, has spent nearly all of the 222 hearing days in the courtroom. But, he said, his initial hopes for a fair trial were gradually dashed over that time as he said he bore witness to the prosecution “manipulating my little speeches as the basis for their allegations against me.”
“Therefore, although I tried to explain in good faith, refuting various charges brought against me, you will continue to criticize me,” he said.
“If I choose to remain silent, you will still accuse me. I would like to make it clear that I never wanted or decided to evacuate the people and neither did I decide the massacre of innocent people.
“My political conscience at that time, given the reality on the ground, whatever I did was to protect the weak; to uphold and respect their fundamental rights and to build a Cambodia that was strong, independent and peaceful.”
He said his being painted as “a monster” rendered him disheartened and that he had “lost the desire to say anything further.”
He only ever hoped for his countrymen to live with dignity, he said, and “did not witness the things that could have happened after liberation and neither did I have any power to intervene or sanction or rectify anything.”
“Some even said I was a coward. The reality was that I didn’t have any power and I did not care about it either,” Khieu Samphan said.
“Do you think that I did not try my best to understand the situation? Do you really think that was what I wanted to happen to my people?… I was never at any one time a part of this plan. Never.”
He said his explanations continued to fall on deaf ears and, as a result, he would not explain himself further.
“I firmly hope that whatever it is, you wise judges will find justice. Thank you.”
In a press conference given after Trial Chamber President Nil Nonn declared the trial over, national prosecutor Chea Leang lauded what she said was an “historical moment” for Cambodia.
Her reserve international counterpart, Nicholas Koumjian, said the team “listened with great interest” when the defendants made their remarks, “but I wouldn’t say we were surprised.”
The defense team for Khieu Samphan, on the other hand, complained of translation issues throughout the trial, which he said “underscored the difficulties we faced.”
Nuon Chea’s international counsel, Victor Koppe, said his team is now keen to have the second “mini-trial,” otherwise known as Case 002/02, heard as soon as possible in order to put “under serious scrutiny” further charges of genocide against their client.
Court officials will meet for three days in December to discuss the possibility of opening this second trial.
A verdict in Case 002/1 is expected next year.